Hope and Glory: the history and feminism of Wonder Woman

By Joachim Heijndermans

“Comics are for boys” is a common conception about the comic book medium. And it is not hard to see why, with musclebound men like Superman and Batman still being published monthly. And yet one of the most famous and beloved superheroes of all time, after many years of hardships and struggles within a male-dominated industry, transcended into something far more powerful: a symbol of hope, compassion and inspiration for women throughout the world. Her name would become synonymous with the very idea of female superhero; Wonder Woman. But her gender was not what made the character so unique. To understand her impact, we must look over her publication history and the lives of those that inspired her creation.

Origins of an Icon

Wonder Woman first appeared in All Star Comics #8, October 1941. Though hardly the first female superhero (predated by characters “Ma Hunkel, the Red Tornado” and “Olga Mesmer”), she was the first to headline a book as the main star. While this itself was quite a feat for any female character, the history behind her creation and the role the women who had a hand in her creation makes her far more unique, especially in regards to the roles imposed on women during the early 20th century.

William and Elizabeth Marston
William and Elizabeth Marston

Psychologist William Moulton Marston was an early advocate for equal right for women, openly supporting the women’s suffrage movement. He believed that a matriarchal society would benefit humanity and pave the way to a utopia. Privately, he was in a polyamorous relationship between him, his bisexual wife Elizabeth Halloway Marston and their mutual friend Oliva Byrne. Privately, the three engaged in female-dominating BDSM activities, themed around submitting to a female force, which would influence their future creation.

The Marstons longed for a female character that embodied strength and would solve problems through the power of love rather than brute force, a character could be enjoyed by both boys and girls. Inspired by their shared lover Olivia, they created a female superhero. That character would become Diana, Princess of Themyscira; Wonder Woman.

Olivia Byrne (L) and William Marston (R)
Olivia Byrne (L) and William Marston (R)

 

The History of the Amazon

The backstory of Wonder Woman goes like this: on the island of Themyscira, the Paradise Island (a not-so-subtle version of Marston’s utopia), lived a race of Amazons, separated from the aggressive male society by the Greek gods of myth. Their Queen, Hippolyta, yearning for a child of her own, sculpted the ideal daughter from clay. The Gods endowed this sculpture with life and a fraction of their power, creating Diana.

The strongest and gentlest of the Amazons, Diana lived an isolated life on the island. This changed when she saved the life of pilot Steve Trevor. Diana traveled to the world of men and began to fight crime and the Third Reich as Wonder Woman, using a magical lasso and bullet deflecting wrist bracelets. Diana would lose her powers only when bound by her magical lasso, another shout-out to the Marstons’ BDSM interests. This weakness was to subvert the typical damsel in distress tropes that were prominent in comics, as Diana would always find a way to free herself, rather than needing a man to rescue her. In a medium that revered male strength and vengeance as a driving motivation for its characters, Wonder Woman broke all the rules, becoming the most unique and socially groundbreaking book to hit the stands.

Wonder Woman in 1940's
Wonder Woman in the ’40s

Success and downturn

Wonder Woman stories were regularly published throughout the 40’s, with the majority of the stories credited to Marston (Elizabeth and Olivia’s contributions were kept silent). He introduced side-characters such as the cheerful Etta Candy and villains like the Cheetah and Dr. Psycho. With her growing popularity, publisher National Comics began looking for more titles for Diana to appear in, placing Wonder Woman on the first Superhero team The Justice Society. But since these stories were not written by the Marstons, the Amazon princess was given the meager position of team secretary while the male members fought the Axis powers, despite being one of the strongest characters in the title. This was an early sign of the troubles that the character would go through in her oncoming years.

In 1947, the title was struck with a devastating blow with the death of William. The series was taken over by writer Robert Kanigher, who downplayed Marston’s feminist themes, but also introduced one of Diana’s most memorable elements: the invisible jet.

The Decline of Wonder Woman

Further problems arose after Marshton’s death. In the 1950’s, psychologist Frederic Wertham concluded that juvenile delinquency was the result of children reading comic books. With his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, he began a crusade against characters like Superman, Batman and Robin, claiming they promoted fascism and homosexuality. Wonder Woman did not avoid his judgement, whom he deemed to cause lesbianism amongst girls, to say little of the bondage-heavy themes. Wonder Woman’s publisher DC comics didn’t want to risk the bad press and decided to play ball, retooling the book to be more “safe”. All of the feminist themes were removed, Etta Candy and other female characters were given diminished roles and Diana became romantically obsessed with Steve Trevor, with repetitive storytelling leading to a quality drop and the loss of what made the title unique.

In 1968, the title was given another harsh blow. In an attempt to rejuvenate interest in the series, Wonder Woman was revamped under writer Mike Sekowsky to fit with the 60’s spy craze. Inspired by Emma Peel from the British television series The Avengers, Diana was stripped of her superpowers, Steve Trevor was killed off, the Amazons and Paradise Island vanished and Wonder Woman herself became a private detective simply going by Diana Prince. The Marston’s woman of power, who could match Superman and Batman in strength, was now a simple private eye with a gun. While the stories weren’t bad per se, and Sekowsky clearly had good intentions by drawing more attention to contemporary feminist issues, it was a distressing sign that the publisher seemed to have lost faith in a super powered female lead.

Hope returns

But hope came in 1971 when famed feminist author Gloria Steinem became involved in the book’s state. It was Wonder Woman’s 30th anniversary, which Steinem celebrated by placing Diana on the cover of Ms. Magazine #1, as well a publishing an article that voiced her outrage that the most renowned female superhero had been depowered and made mundane compared to her male peers. The bad press pressured editors at DC Comics to return Wonder Woman to her previous power level (though ironically, this resulted in the cancellation of a story about abortion, arguably the most progressive idea the comic would have ever tackled). Wonder Woman was back, and her return to form was but the first step in her rise to cultural icon.

In 1975, Wonder Woman reached an even greater audience and place in the public consciousness with the premiere of the Wonder Woman television series, starring Lynda Carter as the eponymous hero. The series was a great success, with many women to this very day citing it as an inspiration of female empowerment. From this point on, Wonder Woman was cemented as the woman superhero, the bar to which all other female superheroes would have to measure with.

Since the success of the television series led to an influx of new readers, DC felt it was time to relaunch the comic by rebooting the title with creators George Perez, Len Wein, and Greg Potter. The series tackled contemporary issues such as sexual assault, women in war and religion. During this period there were two first for women, as Wonder Woman would be written by Mindy Newell and drawn by artist Trina Robbins, the first women to do so openly.

Wonder Woman in 1980's
Wonder Woman in the ’80s

After a brief downturn in the 90’s, during which Diana became more violent and sexualized and was killed off only to be revived, Wonder Woman returned to form in the 2000’s with an improved level of quality in art and writing under writer/artist Phil Jimenez. Jimenez would be followed by Batman writer Greg Rucka, who placed more focus on the political angle of the stories. After Rucka’s run, Wonder Woman was given to Gail Simone, who would be the longest female writer on the title, bringing even more acclaim to the series as well a greater scope of humor. Rucka eventually returned, adding the biggest shake-up in her 75+ year history by confirming Diana’s bisexuality, finally completing her resemblance to her inspiration: Olivia Byrne.

Controversies at the UN and Hollywood

The strangest debacle ever to involve Wonder Woman was the brief period where the character was named an honorary ambassador of the UN (the real one), one of the few fictional characters to be granted that title. Many fans rejoiced, feeling that the woman that has inspired them was finally given her due as a symbol of hope and strength. But critics could not look past her costume and figure, protesting her appointment and decrying her as “a pin-up girl with impossible proportions draped in the American flag”. While both sides had valid points, the debacle created animosity around a character whose very essence is about unifying the sexes and bringing hope to those who feel oppressed and marginalized, judged by those who have no interest or knowledge of the character and die-hard fans who refuse to acknowledge the long-standing problems the industry has with gender politics.

Problems with Wonder Woman were not restricted to the comic publishing side. For years, DC comic’s owners Time Warner did not seem to know what to do with the Wonder Woman property when it came to adapting her to other media. Many attempts at producing a Wonder Woman movie failed, the blame of which was often placed on the excuse that “female-led stories/movies have no audience”. Script after script was produced, with several famed writers and directors being placed and removed from the project. The only project to near completion during was a pilot episode for a tv-series. Said was heavily criticized by fans and non-fans alike, maligned for its terrible script, direction, acting and characterization, with Wonder Woman being portrayed as a self-absorbed corporate CEO who uses violence and intimidation while scoffing at any valid criticism of her actions. The pilot seemed to be a summation of all the problems that Wonder Woman’s owners had with the character: they did not understand her, and she was deemed unprofitable as a movie product.

Return to Glory

But in 2010’s, this finally changed. After her first cinematic appearance in The Lego Movie, Wonder Woman was given a role in 2015’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, played by Israeli actress, model, and former soldier Gal Gadot. The film received mixed reviews, but Gadot’s performance as Diana was praised. Not long after, Wonder Woman was finally granted her first solo film, directed by Patty Jenkins (director of the Oscar-winning film Monster in 2000) and Gadot reprising her role. The film premiered in 2017 to great acclaim, some hailing it as the start of a new age of female led films after so many years of an arguably male-dominated genre.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Throughout her history, Wonder Woman went through many highs and lows, going through many phases and embodying many trends. She has been a symbol of female empowerment. The embodiment of compassion. A role model to readers of all genders and orientations. An outlet for taboos. A superhero. A detective. A part-time chef at a taco restaurant. And while some criticize her as another cog in an industry that caters to male power fantasies and sexualized women to distasteful degrees, it cannot be denied that Wonder Woman hasn’t just left a mark on the industry, but on our culture itself.

Diana has shown that women can be strong and the strong can be compassionate. That violence is not the solution to conflict, but that there is no shame in showing force. Wonder Woman is the superheroine. And we love her for it.

Joachim Heijndermans is a writer and artist from the Netherlands. From an early age he’s been fascinated with comic books and animation, eventually studying both in the Netherlands and the USA at the Kubert School. His writing has been published with a number of magazines, including Gathering Storm, Mad Scientist Journal, Storyteller, Metaphorosis and Ares Magazine. He is currently finishing his first children’s book.

 

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